It is the lot of all villains to not be the character we’re meant to root for in the story. That’s reserved for the hero. The heroes are supposed to be the ones with the moral high ground, the nobler goals, and with something to lose should the villains succeed.
But a lot of times, in great stories, the characters are not so simplistic. A great villain often has qualities that can make them sympathetic or admirable, even if they use those qualities for objectionable goals. They can be fearsome and despicable but some part of them still appeals to us. With a little alternative character interpretation and an open mind, we could discover that some of the most deplorable villains actually exhibit some of our best qualities. They could even offer examples to aspire to. Here are 15 Terrifying Villains Who Are Actually Wonderful Role Models!
15 MAGNETO – X-MEN
If you’re repeatedly exposed to the worst tendencies of humanity, you might also be driven to revenge (or at least advocacy for your own persecuted group). Max Eisenhardt and his family were among the millions of Jews rounded up by the Nazis in concentration camps. He had the grit to survive that ordeal and eventually become the powerful mutant known as Magneto. He also realized that mutants could easily find themselves in the same boat as the peoples persecuted by the Nazis - unless the mutants struck first.
Magneto isn’t just about getting back at ordinary humans and levelling the playing field. In several incarnations, he genuinely tries to build up other mutants' opinions of themselves. He encourages the young Mystique not to be ashamed of her unusual blue appearance. He also relentlessly pursues an education in genetics and physics, to enhance his understanding of his own powers.
14 BOBA FETT – STAR WARS
Perhaps the greatest mundane badass of any character in Star Wars. Boba Fett was raised to be a clone and surrogate son of the notorious bounty Hunter Jango Fett. Jango wanted to raise Boba like a normal son and specifically asked that Boba receive no genetic enhancement and no growth acceleration. After all, a Mandalorian is not meant to be a generic soldier.
The quality that makes Boba Fett so admirable (and a fan favorite besides his badass look), is his consummate professionalism. His training as a bounty hunter was surely incomplete when Mace Windu decapitated Jango Fett on Geonosis. But the young man took it upon himself to learn the skills necessary to survive and earn his reputation as the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy.
He even develops his own code of honor in both the Legends and the New Continuity. He refuses to harm clone troopers, his genetic kin and he doesn’t want anyone else to suffer from his vendetta against Mace Windu. In the Legends, he even teamed up with or trained the Solos during the Yuuzhan Vong and Second Galactic Civil Wars.
13 SYNDROME – THE INCREDIBLES
All Buddy Pine wanted as a kid was to fight alongside his favorite superhero, Mr. Incredible. Through a combination of bad timing and villainous meddling, Buddy never got the chance to fulfill his dream of being the tech-wiz-Robin to Mr. Incredible’s Batman. Your idols can only disappoint you so much before you crack, so Buddy invented a new mission for himself. He uses his own ingenuity to gain wealth and power, without any supernatural abilities that were an accident of birth.
When Syndrome finally got to confront Mr. Incredible about mistreating him as a kid, he absolutely had a point. Mr. Incredible brushed Buddy off because Buddy was insignificant to him, and he was also only apologizing to him for it now because Syndrome turned out to be powerful. He was clever enough to develop artificially intelligent, learning robots, nimble rocket boots and “zero-point” energy gloves that let him freeze any object in place.
12 GUSTAVO FRING – BREAKING BAD
This Afro-Chilean-Italian entrepreneur fled the Pinochet dictatorship to try and make a name for himself with his family’s chicken recipe, but he soon had his eye on a shadier market. Gus Fring and his chemist partner Maximino Arciniega had the cojones to pitch their own methamphetamine to the Mexican Juarez Cartel. Unfortunately for Gus, and especially for Max, the Cartel didn’t want any insolent competition from a foreign upstart.
Gus spent the next twenty years building his own meth empire in the American Southwest with Los Pollos Hermanos as a front, all to avenge Max’s death. He curated an impeccable public image as a respectable businessman and philanthropist. In Breaking Bad we see him contribute to Walter’s cancer treatment fund and bring free meals to the fellow cops holding vigil by Hank Shrader’s bedside. Throughout the show and the backstory Gus runs his business like clockwork, shrewdly taking care of his interests and his employees.
11 URSULA – THE LITTLE MERMAID
Ursula is a gender switch of the classic Lucifer story, and if you’ve ever read Paradise Lost you know that it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Sure she was kicked out of Atlantica for her ambitious dabbling in magic, but why shouldn’t the boundaries of magical possibilities be pushed? Ursula builds up a power base of her own through the magical prowess she develops, a self-made woman.
She’s also totally comfortable in her own skin and owns her looks, as memorably demonstrated in her song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Even though Ariel is admittedly young and naïve, Ursula still convinces her to accept the contract despite merfolk and creatures throughout the ocean warning her of Ursula’s treachery. Ursula even lets Ariel come pretty close to kissing Prince Eric without interfering, so she’s not completely dishonorable. The moray eels Flotsam and Jetsam were also genuine pets as well as minions to Ursula. She was not only angry, but sad when they perished.
10 THE ILLUSIVE MAN – MASS EFFECT
Jack Harper was a capable soldier during the First Contact War between Humanity and the Turians. He was taken prisoner by Saren and Desolas Arterius and had to go through the deaths of his squad mates and exposure to a dangerous alien artifact. The events of Mass Effect: Evolution convince Jack Harper that humanity needs to assert itself against the unfathomable threats the galaxy holds. He eventually founds the controversial pro-human covert organization known as Cerberus. His skills at manipulation, at a personal and macro level, are unmatched in the series - except for the Reapers, and that’s just because of indoctrination.
The Illusive Man also doesn’t let Cerberus’s penchant for space racism stop him from seeking alien help when the stakes are high enough. Cerberus brought the brightest and toughest from many species together to join Commander Shepard on his mission to stop the Collectors. The Illusive Man was the only one to take the Collector threat seriously, going so far as to spend billions worth of resources to resurrect Shepard. That’s commitment.
He’s also got impeccable taste in suits, whiskey, cybernetic implants and sexual partners! What's not to like?
9 LEX LUTHOR – DC
Lex Luthor stands for the critical objection to a usually unchallenged idea: what if Superman’s presence and actions aren’t actually benefitting humanity? Admittedly, Lex Luthor had to grow into this more mature reason for opposing Superman through successive incarnations by various comics writers. But it still makes him a well-intentioned character in a certain light and in certain stories.
He has used his considerable resources and influence to protect Earth from alien threats that (to some extent or another) Superman or Kryptonians are responsible for. It’s hard to argue that the idea of humanity achieving goals like peace and apex technology for itself isn’t worthwhile. Luther himself is a near peerless scientific genius and has built up his image, his fame and his wealth all on his own. As much as he may be driven by envy he does succeed in reshaping the world through his inventions with startling frequency. Also, he saved a whole planet from destruction and got the population to worship him for it, no big deal.
8 DR. HANNIBAL LECTER – HANNIBAL
The show Hannibal works off of the audience knowledge of the suspense classic Silence of the Lambs to engage the viewer on level above what the characters, like Will, know. To its credit the show does a fine job creating dramatic irony about Hannibal’s homicidal cannibalism all on its own. For a big part of the show, Will and the FBI saw Dr. Hannibal Lector exactly as how he wanted them to see him. He’s an impeccably cultured, well-mannered psychiatrist who is helping Will and the FBI solve serial murder cases.
Hannibal has his own personal moral code that he believes in and adheres to. He deplores rudeness such as when he deals with Fredricka Lounds. He also has perverse respect for those he considers his equals and only eats from those he considers inferior to himself. As the series goes on it’s also implied that Hannibal has been trying to build trust and friendship with Will the only way his mind will let him.
7 TYWIN LANNISTER – GAME OF THRONES
Tywin Lannister grew up in a House that had become a joke throughout the Westerlands. His father Tytos Lannister, had squandered the House’s wealth on poor investments and had let himself be mocked and disobeyed by his vassal houses including House Reyne of Castamere.
Tywin decided that he would not tolerate such insolence while he was the Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West. He made House Lannister the wealthiest and most respected House in Westeros again and essentially made it the royal family through his cunning schemes with and against the Mad King. By the time the action kicks off in Game of Thrones, Tywin is universally regarded as the biggest political player in the realm.
His relationships with his children are complicated to say the least but he has definitely demonstrated some parenting ability. In the show’s backstory, it’s mentioned that he sat down with Jaime for four hours every day to help him overcome a learning difficulty and learn to read. Despite his hatred of Tyrion, he entrusts him to act as Hand of the King when Tyrion shows he’s got some political wits about him. We also see him teach his grandson Tommen a vital lesson about wisdom and kings.
6 IRENE ADLER – SHERLOCK
The master of deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes hasn’t had many true rivals in his career. But Sherlock’s version of Irene Adler certainly counts amongst them for a time. She’s introduced as a high profile dominatrix who has snapped some indecent photos of a young female member of the British Royal Family during a dominatrix session. Sherlock and John are dispatched to investigate, but Irene Adler turns out to be more than they bargained for.
For one thing she introduces herself to Holmes completely naked as if it were a totally normal, socially acceptable thing. Sherlock is left reeling as his trademark visual scan has nothing to pick up on other than Adler’s manufactured distracting nakedness.
She’s used her armor piercing social skills to hold entire countries hostage and she can defend herself if necessary. When karma does catch up to her she successfully fakes her own death twice. How’s that for cunning?
5 JUDGE CLAUDE FROLLO – HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Put yourself in the shoes of Frollo, from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. A true Disney movie villain in the late 15th century, Frollo was a man of his times, trying to defend his home from what he perceived to be its enemies. So Paris is being settled by Romani - to Frollo, pickpocketing vagrants - who do not adhere to the teachings of Christianity, and Frollo believes it is his mission to convert or stamp out these people. If you’re convinced that you’ve been appointed to carry out God’s will, you would be hard pressed to find any other animated character so devoted as Frollo.
In that sense you could see his decision to spare the infant Quasimodo as a merciful compromise or a perhaps a genuine desire to atone for murdering Quasimodo’s mother. Frollo didn’t have to teach a deformed bell-ringer to read either. He is proud to do God’s work and wants to build up those he works with to share in his mission as best they are able.
4 ADRIEN VEIDT – WATCHMEN
What did the gangster-busting antics of both generations of Watchmen really accomplish? That was the question that plagued Adrien Veidt, aka Ozymandias. Neither his predecessors nor his fellow masked vigilantes managed to improve the world, for all their headlines and arrests. So Adrien Veidt devoted himself improving the world in a less flashy manner. He drove himself to the apex of physical and mental conditioning and built a multimedia, technological empire that worked to create a better world.
But sometimes the world needs to be saved from itself. Nuclear war between Russia and the United States was looking imminent. Instead of brooding with the world on the brink of annihilation, like the other heroes, Veidt staged an alien attack on New York City that managed to unite the world against a common enemy. Thousands of lives were sacrificed, but it worked. Most brilliant of all, Veidt managed to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for his fellow Watchmen and convince all of them that keeping the truth a secret was necessary to preserve this peace. Almost all of them, anyway. What a guy!
3 CATWOMAN – BATMAN
It can’t be easy for an orphaned young girl to not only survive in the volatile Gotham City, but to grow into one of its most notorious criminal personalities. Selina Kyle has been saddled with increasingly bleaker backstories over the years, plenty involving prostitution and abusive parents or pimps, or a younger sister that she’s risked life and limb to protect. In one comics, she even escapes being thrown in a river while trapped in a bag.
Catwoman always becomes an accomplished gymnast and melee combatant, using acrobatics and the iconic bullwhip against her foes. Sometimes she even sets aside her tendencies for burglary and kleptomania to aide Batman in putting down Gotham’s worst. Occasionally, Catwoman even uses her thieving skills for altruistic missions. She frequently puts Batman through his paces in terms of hand to hand combat and stealth. As an independent survivor, she’s got the skills to take what she wants and to avoid the consequences.
2 ANDREW RYAN – BIOSHOCK
“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”
Andrei Rayanovsky was born while the Czar still ruled Russia. When the Bolsheviks transformed his country into a socialist collective still run by corrupt and tyrannical autocrats, he fled to the United States to make his own fortune. He only got further disillusioned when FDR enacted his New Deal reforms, that shackled the brightest and hardest working minds in the States to the whims of the “parasites.” He also saw the use of nuclear weapons as unconscionable. To him, it was a perversion of science by the parasites who would seek to destroy what they could not seize.
So he decided to make his own Objectivist Utopia, in the splendid underwater haven of Rapture. For a time, Rapture was exactly the innovative paradise that Ryan believed his philosophy would produce. He was willing to take drastic steps to ensure that his city stuck to its ideals. A leader, a man with principles - Andrew Ryan was worth worth looking up to.
1 DR. DOOM – MARVEL
As the arch enemy of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, Victor von Doom is arguably the most accomplished supervillain to start out as an ordinary human ever. He’s pushed himself to the limit of physical and mental perfection, becoming a second-to-none mad scientist, powerful sorcerer and the messianic despot of his homeland. He’s become so powerful that Marvel heroes and teams from throughout their comics have had him as the main bad guy for a stretch as he schemes to rule the entire world.
He’s able to produce clones of himself as powerful as he is with his Doombots. He’s saved humanity from zombies and sustained the Battleworld through sheer willpower He’s been able to wield Mjolnir and Cap’s shield among lists of other unlikely or impossible feats, all with abilities or resources that he gained himself. And the (original) purpose for all this power was rescuing his mother’s soul form Mephisto. With that impressive, self-made resume, you’ve got to respect the Doom.
Are there other great villains that you think would make great role models? Let us know in the comments!